Name: Mia Hall Miller
Organization: Pacific Youth Choir
Annual Operating Budget: $506,000
Learn more at pacificyouthchoir.org
Interview originally published on April 28, 2020.
How are the arts playing a role during this critical time?
During these days of COVID-19, all of us in the arts have had to find new ways to create community. The arts, and music in particular, has the capacity to lift us up in times of trouble. They can provide the much-needed comfort and connection that we crave during this difficult time.
One example that comes to mind is the YouTube videos of people singing opera from balconies in Italy. Those videos inspired others across Europe to put on their own neighborhood concerts. Many professional artists are posting regular performances from their home, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Actor Sir Patrick Stewart is reciting a Shakespeare sonnet a day on Instagram. Artist Mo Willems has been posting hour-long drawing lessons for children on his YouTube channel daily. The MET Opera has been posting an opera a day on their website. And of course, our own wonderful All Classical Radio, without which we would be lost, suspended its fundraiser in the early days of this pandemic. All over the world, artists and patrons of the arts are finding a way to make all of this just a little bit easier….Arts lifts our spirits during these days.
What has been the most notable / most unpredictable / most challenging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your organization? Biggest financial challenge?
I don’t think anybody was prepared for how quickly this spread and the impact it had. Many organizations have had to close their doors. Like many other performance-based organizations, we have effectively had to cancel the rest of the season.
The weekend following Governor Brown’s announcement of school closures, we were scheduled to perform Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy with Cappella Romana. This was a huge undertaking in Slavonic that we had been working on since September. After Governor Brown’s announcement, we quickly realized that we needed to step away from this project.
Two weeks later, we had to cancel the rest of our season. I’ll be honest, that has been very challenging. Financially lost performance revenue, some tuition payments, and drops in our invested funds have taken a huge toll. On a deeper level, our reason for being – to bring young people together in song – is not something that we can accomplish right now. That’s been very hard for all of us who are a part of this.
To date, what steps have you taken to mitigate that impact?
Zoom is better than nothing, but it can’t the excitement of rehearsing and performing together during these months. We are hopeful for future collaborations next season, but that is of course dependent upon the virus. The health and safety of our singers, their families, and our community are of highest priority.
Financially, we applied for and were funded for our SBA Loan, and have been happy to see some of our donors reaching out to the choir. Like many non-profits, however, we have had to make some difficult decisions about what we can continue to afford.
As we look forward to planning next season, we will absolutely be planning for multiple contingencies. If it’s taught us anything, this virus has taught us not to take anything for granted. Most importantly, we are staying in touch with our singers, families, and community throughout this challenging time. We are still a community bound by a shared love of music, even when we can’t be together physically.
What kind of innovation in management has developed for your organization, and what challenges have you encountered when implementing new innovative ideas?
All of our conductors reach out to our singers through weekly ZOOM sessions and emails. It is, unfortunately, impossible to sing together on ZOOM, due to delay times, but we can see each other, check in with each other, and learn new things.
Each of the high school Zoom sessions includes guests. I have been very impressed with how many musical leaders have offered to come onto PYC High School Zoom sessions, for example singer/teachers Angela Niederloh and Matthew Hayward, Oregon Symphony Associate Conductor, and All Classical music host Christa Wessel. PYC also created one virtual choir number “A Path to Each Other” which will soon appear on our website.
We have been invited to do another with singers from all over the world. The worldwide invitation is from Matthew Oltman of Shenandoah University featuring singers United States, Ireland, England, Luxembourg, South Africa, India, Myanmar, Taiwan, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Australia. They also represent a diversity of individuals and ensembles: professional, semi-professional, community, university, high school, church and youth. We are excited to be invited, and hope to be well represented on this exciting project.
What are the short-term and potential long-term effects of this shut down for your organization and the arts in general?
The shut down has presented huge challenges for PYC in the short term and long term. We are a wonderful performing community, a model that by its nature entails coming together weekly in large numbers, and working towards performing for event larger crowds. It is very challenging on our young musicians not to be able to be together and create beauty on a weekly basis.
We are committed to continuing to serve young people and our community whenever that can happen. We rely on our community to help support us, and all arts organizations to provide a strong and viable future for all.
What is a positive collaboration or initiative born as a result of this situation within your organization or that you’ve seen from your peers and colleagues in the arts industry?
I have been very inspired by how much we are all communicating and offering to help each other. For our weekly ZOOM sessions, we have had so many professional musicians coming on to inspire our young people! I have seen the same happening with the ZOOM sessions put on by MYS and PYP. (Read above about International Virtual Choir…a huge collaboration.)
What is the biggest lesson learned as a leader during this crisis?
I have learned that the connection that we have forged with our young singers in making music has survived our inability to not make the music in person.
Understanding that the future is hard to predict, how might the lasting impacts of COVID-19 change your upcoming season? Should the tone of pieces or performances change?
This will definitely inform our selections and performances next season. When the time finally comes for us to gather and make music, we will have a lot to celebrate, and a lot to mourn. This time is unique in that we have a common shared experience – one that we can, will, and must draw upon as artists.
Regarding the creative process, what has been a source of inspiration for you/your organization at this time or how has your creative process changed and evolved? What outlets or channels have you sought out to continue to express your creativity, personally and/or professionally?
Not being able to create music with the wonderful young musicians of Pacific Youth Choir has been very challenging! To find inspiration I have been taking time to walk and listen to the sounds around me. I have been revisiting our recorded performances as well as listening to many outstanding instrumental, choral, and solo works….and listening to silence.
About a month ago, The Aeolions Choir 2020 Alumni of Oakwood University prepared an amazing Virtual Choir of “We Shall Overcome,” which they dedicated to “All families that are suffering and have lost families to this silent enemy. To our soldiers on the front lines of this unprecedented battle -our health care workers. Thank you”. Their choir is an amazing example of speaking to our present and living towards our future.
What message do you have for the artists and fellow art leaders in our community today?
To encourage all to keep creating art, to remember how important our work is to the lives we touch, and to prepare awesome things for when we finally can come together.
When looking to the future, what brings you hope?
The beauty of the environment re-setting. Hearing more bird songs, clear skies, and water.
People learning new skills, and taking time to be still. Parents spending more time with their children. People valuing the beautiful gifts we took for granted: being able to have rehearsals with hundreds of young people and audiences appreciating the magic created together.
What question do you wish someone would ask?!
The ideal question would be: “Mia, Pacific Youth Choir has done so much in our community – how can we best guarantee a strong future?”
About Mia Hall Miller:
With more than 30 years of choral education experience, Mia’s dedication and enthusiasm for working with young people is widely recognized. In addition to PYC, Mia is a popular adjudicator and clinician. She has conducted the Oregon Music Educators Association All-State Elementary Choir, Middle School Girl’s Honor Choir, and the Colorado All State Middle School Women’s Choir. Mia is honored to conduct the Tokyo International Youth Choral Honor Choir in March 2020. Mia holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Music from the University of Oregon. She studied further in Stuttgart, Germany while singing with outstanding choral directors Helmuth Rilling and Frieder Bernius. She has continued conducting studies in workshops with Dr. Rodney Eichenberger. Mia is a member of ACDA and has served as membership chair for Oregon, and co-Chair of the Middle School Honor Choir. Mia has been greatly honored to receive The 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award from The University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, The Oregon Symphony’s 2016 Schnitzer Wonder Award, and received the Yolanda King Arts Award in 2017.
In 2003 she founded Pacific Youth Choir, which has grown to include 300 singers in 10 choirs. PYC in residence at Trinity Cathedral has gained a reputation for quality that has led to continuing collaborations with Oregon’s top musical organizations including: Oregon Symphony Orchestra, Portland Youth Philharmonic, Eugene Symphony, Oregon Ballet Theater, Whitebird Dance, Portland Chamber Orchestra, Trinity Choir, and Thomas Lauderdale and Pink Martini in performances and recordings. PYC has been honored to perform at American Choral Directors Association conventions in 2008 in Vancouver, BC, the 50th Anniversary National ACDA Convention in Oklahoma City, March 2009, the 2012, 2014 conventions in Seattle, WA. and in Portland on March 7, 2018!